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New, Safer US Rail Cars Gather Dust Even as Ethanol Trains Grow Longer


Kurt Haubrich/Flickr

While crossing a small wooden bridge in northwestern Iowa on March 16, 20 rail tank cars in a mile-long train transporting ethanol flew off the tracks, sending fireballs into the sky as thousands of gallons of the biofuel leaked into the creek below.

No one was injured, in part because the accident occurred in a sparsely populated area. A similar derailment in the more dense Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, in 2013 killed 47 people after a train carrying crude oil crashed and exploded.

But the incident in Iowa underscores the growing risk of another serious accident along with the increasing volume of the biofuel being moved in unit trains that are a mile long with about 100 railcars — dubbed "rolling pipelines" — to slash freight costs.

That is because ethanol shippers are still primarily using the type of railcars that were deemed too unsafe to carry crude after the Quebec disaster, even though the biofuel is more explosive than oil.

Thousands of replacement cars meant to better withstand an accident are sitting idle in rail yards around the country because the ethanol industry is not required to use them for six more years and they cost about three times as much as the older cars, according to industry sources.

The U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration gave the ethanol industry until 2023 to employ cars with thicker shells and other safety features. Before the Iowa incident, PHMSA said it does not see any safety issues with relying on older cars, known as DOT-111s.

"We would like to see the shippers accelerate their schedule to get these legacy DOT-111 tank cars out of service when transporting flammable liquids — specifically crude oil and ethanol,” Robert Sumwalt, member of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, an independent federal agency, said at a March 18 press briefing in Iowa after the accident.

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By Jarrett Renshaw and Chris Prentice
Reuters


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